Perhaps it began with The Elves and the Shoemaker (still one of my two favourite fairytales).
I’m no Imelda Marcos but when I was a child I did long for a pair of pointy red shoes. (I couldn’t believe my fortune when my cousin gave me her outgrown ones – the very pair that had seeded the yearning.)
When I was a teenager I made my own knee-high ugg boots. Mum sometimes tanned skins from our sheep and I snaffled a brown one of those. I bought leather thonging and spent evenings sewing by the fire. The boots were utilitarian rather than decorative and terrifically snugly. It didn’t bother me that they were not as tidy as other people’s store-bought ones.
There’s something very pleasing about meeting one’s own needs.
Years later, when I was teaching eight year olds, I wanted them to experience that. We made shoes. Our resources and technologies were limited but they gained an understanding of process and the joy of creating.
Each of these events was present as I recently wandered through the wealth that is the Bata Shoe Museum.
It began with the oldest shoe. Had my class seen this (alas, the museum is in Toronto; we were in Australia; no internet) maybe someone would have attempted another replica of Ötzi Man’s very serviceable footwear.
They may have denuded the school gardens to find a plant that could be beaten into fibre for weaving…
…or used to create a fumidawara, a tall, northern Japanese boot for treading paths through snow around the house.
These clogs would have helped them understand that a basic design idea can be tweaked for specific purposes.
Out of context would my class have guessed the item below was a shoe? Experiment: put this intricately engraved Indian paduka in a Western house, perhaps on a table, and see to what use it is put.
I was stunned by the cruelty inherent in this dainty beauty. (Below)
Even my class’s little feet would not have fitted in these Chinese shoes. It’s heart-breaking to imagine adult feet that would.
“The heel emerged in Western fashion in the late 16th century and was worn by wealthy men, women and children…(They) proclaimed that the wearer was free from physical labour.” (Extract from museum sign.)
Manual labour does have some requirements for elevation though. This savage-looking beast was only a problem if you were a 19th century chestnut that didn’t want to be shelled. It hails from chestnut-consuming Auvergne, France.
Napoleon’s black silk socks were there. My photo was too blurred to use. So imagine a pair of thin black socks – that’s them. They prove that celebrity culture was alive and well in the early 1820s – they came from the assistant surgeon on the ship which brought Napoleon’s entourage home after his death.
Fittingly, the footwear of His High Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama is the simplest-looking in the museum.
“To make truly beautiful shoes was a primary objective for North American Indigenous women. Their artistic aspirations were traditionally expressed through superb and creative craftsmanship. Unlike many other cultures in the world, where footwear is created mainly for protection and durability, Indigenous women gave priority to a meaningful and often labour intensive design, which was pleasing to the eye.” (Extract from museum sign.)
And so we return to the magic of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Artistry, creativity and craftsmanship – this constellation is part of what the tale conveyed to me as a child. I found it not in Marilyn Munroe’s (or my own) pointy red shoes but in the wide varieties of soft and vibrant moccasins.
That is the soul-nourishment I wanted my students to experience through the making of a humble shoe.
Do not hesitate to visit this museum. Five storeys of changing exhibits, including some I haven’t mentioned here, plus a variety of events make it very worthwhile for all the family. www.batashoemuseum.ca
PS My apologies for making your eyes feel squiffy with some out-of-focus photographs.